A mural at the Free Derry Corner, painted ahead of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland. Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
On 30 January 1972, more than 20,000 people joined a march in Derry organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). NICRA’s platform called for an end to the system that discriminated against Northern Ireland’s nationalist minority, and demanded the release of several hundred prisoners who the British Army had interned without trial.
Around 4pm, soldiers from the Parachute Regiment went into action against the marchers. By the end of the day, they had gunned down 13 civilians; another man they shot later died of his injuries.
In 2010, after the publication of a long-awaited report by Lord Mark Saville, British prime minister David Cameron apologised for the deaths, conceding that they were “unjustified and unjustifiable.” He went on to claim that Saville’s report contained no evidence of premeditation or a plan behind the events of Bloody Sunday. The soldiers themselves had to take exclusive blame: “Some mistakes were undoubtedly made.”
The massacre was no random calamity, however. It took place in a political context shaped by the British government’s decision to prop up the Unionist administration at Stormont after the deployment of British troops in August 1969.
The governments of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath stuck to this position for more than two years in spite of the escalating violence. Many nationalists who had initially welcomed the British Army now came to see it as a tool of the Unionist party, bent on repressing their struggle for equal rights.
“Given its composition, Stormont was most unlikely to take substantive action. Indeed it would probably have seen that as being contrary to its own interests. Stormont was part of the problem and could have been so recognised at the time.”
Refusing to accept this logic, the British government agreed instead to the demand of the Unionist leader Brian Faulkner for internment of suspects without trial. On 9 August 1971, the Army launched a mass arrest operation, scooping up hundreds of men who were accused of belonging to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Instead of reducing the violence, internment resulted in a massive escalation. There had been 34 deaths in Northern Ireland during the first seven months of 1971; within two days, there were 17 more, with 140 to follow by the end of the year. Soldiers from the Parachute Regiment shot ten civilians dead in Ballymurphy, a nationalist area of west Belfast, over the course of 36 hours.
Most nationalists believed Faulkner’s goal was to prop up the Unionist party and coerce the minority into accepting the status quo, perhaps combined with a few cosmetic reforms that would not address the core issues of exclusion and discrimination. They responded with a campaign of civil resistance.
A rent-and-rates strike by council tenants won solid backing among working-class Catholics. By the end of September, there were 26,000 households on strike, representing one-fifth of the 135,000 local authority tenants. In tandem with the strike, nationalist anger expressed itself in the form of ‘no-go areas’ in Derry and Belfast where it was no longer safe for British troops to enter.
This was the context in which some of those who had organised the civil rights protests of 1968–69 decided to revive the tactic of street marches at the end of 1971. The Derry activist Eamonn McCann later described their political motivation for doing so:
“None of the other forms of protest provided a way for the mass of working-class people to become actively involved in the fight. The rent-and-rates strike had its attractions, but it was a passive sort of activity. The armed struggle could, of its nature, involve only a few, while rioting was appropriate mainly to the energetic young.”
In the final weeks of 1971, Faulkner suddenly had to grapple with a marching campaign spearheaded by two organisations, NICRA and the Northern Resistance Movement (NRM). These protests posed a direct challenge to Stormont’s authority, as Faulkner had imposed a six-month ban on all street processions to coincide with internment, which he extended in January. On 22 January, NICRA organised a march to Magilligan, north of Derry, where the authorities had recently opened a camp for internees.
Soldiers of the Parachute Regiment prevented the marchers from reaching the camp by firing rubber bullets and striking freely with their batons. One soldier was heard remarking to his officers: “I thought we were here to stop them, not massacre them.” NICRA then announced its intention to defy the ban once more with a demonstration in Derry itself on 30 January. The local branch of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party promised to hold a counter-protest, then called it off at the last minute, claiming to have received assurances that the security forces would stop the marchers “by force if necessary.”
The local police commander, Frank Lagan, wanted to minimise the danger of a violent confrontation. According to Brendan Duddy, who acted as an intermediary for Lagan, he sought and received assurances from the two republican groups in Derry, the Provisionals and the Officials, that their members would not bring weapons on the march or use it as an opportunity to attack the British Army. However, the Army commander Robert Ford ignored Lagan’s advice and decided to “scoop up as many hooligans as possible” on the day in a mass arrest operation.
Ford chose the soldiers of the Parachute Regiment, with the killings in Ballymurphy already on their record, as the agents of his plan. When the marchers reached the Army barricade, the Paras went into action, cheered on by Ford.
A devastating legacy.
Supporters of the Provisional IRA believed that Bloody Sunday had sounded the death knell for the tactic of unarmed protest: from now on, force would have to be met with force. Yet the civil resistance campaign actually entered its most intense phase in the weeks that followed. On 6 February, a NICRA demonstration in Newry attracted more than 50,000 people, despite warnings that the violence in Derry might be repeated. The no-go areas were consolidated, the rent-and-rates strike strengthened. Faulkner and Heath now faced a nationalist population united in rejection of their authority.
When Faulkner refused to hand over security powers to Westminster, Heath imposed direct rule on 24 March. British civil servants began putting out feelers for a new political initiative that might isolate the republican guerrillas and bring nationalist politicians such as John Hume onside. However, the Provisionals had already recruited enough new members in the wake of internment and Bloody Sunday to sustain their insurgency for many years to come.
The British state learnt an important lesson from the massacre and its aftermath. It never drove all sections of nationalist opinion into full-blown opposition to its policy again – although Margaret Thatcher’s government came close during the republican hunger strikes of 1981. This comparatively subtle approach ensured that the IRA could only win support from a minority of nationalists, and it ultimately called a ceasefire in the 1990s. But that move came after thousands of deaths and injuries that need never have happened if the British authorities had not embarked on such a disastrous course in the early 1970s.
The collapse of Soldier F’s trial last July means that nobody has ever been held accountable for the killings. 50 years on, the massacre and the subsequent cover-up by Lord John Widgery in his 1972 report stand as a permanent reminder of what the British state is capable of doing to its own citizens, and how tenaciously it will resist those campaigning for truth and justice.
Daniel Finn is features editor of Jacobin and author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.